U.S. scientists say they are trying to unleash the promise of an old idea by converting light into electricity more efficiently than ever before.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology research is applying new materials, new technologies and new ideas to radically improve an old concept — thermophotovoltaic, or TPV, conversion of light into electricity.

Rather than using the engine to turn a generator or alternator in a car, for example, the new TPV system would burn a little fuel to create super-bright light. Efficient photo diodes similar to solar cells would then harvest the energy, using it to run the various lighting, electrical and electronic systems in the car.

The scientists say such a light-based system would not replace the car’s engine. Instead it would supply enough electricity to run subsystems, consuming far less fuel than is needed to keep a heavy, multi-cylinder engine running, even at low speed. Also, the TPV system would have no moving parts, so no energy would be spent keeping an engine turning over.

Recent papers on the work have appeared in Physical Review B and the Journal of Applied Physics.